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Hollywood: Clippers Go to the Movies - Page 3

The China Clipper actually got ahead of Pan American’s timetable.  The real airline meant to complete its route from California to China in 1935.  It made it as far as Manila, but negotiations over landing rights in China stalled completion of the final leg between Manila and Hong Kong or Macau.  The full route bridging the Pacific was not completed until 1937 although the 1936 movie showing completion of the route obviously banked on its being completed earlier.  In this way, the movie could serve as both a fictional adventure movie and pseudo-documentary following real events.  Pan American was credited with an achievement not yet realized.

Bombay Clipper (Universal, 1942) starring William Gargan and Irene Hervey prominently featured the clippers too.  Following the typical Clipper story found in many magazines of the time, the plot centered on an attempted hijacking of a Clipper.  In this case the hero and heroine went up against Nazi agents trying to stop $4 million in Indian diamonds headed for Great Britain.  Much of the movie was shot on a set made to simulate the Clipper’s interior.  Publicity for this movie in the way of posters and lobby cards featured the newer, larger Boeing clippers rather than the earlier Martin or “China” clippers featured in China Clipper.

Another 1942 movie, Tales of Manhattan, experimented with following the history of a tailcoat through five episodes and different sets of owners.  In the very first episode, Charles Boyer tried to seduce Rita Hayworth (already married to Charles Laughton) into running away with him by jumping on the Clipper to Rio.  Directed by Julien Duvivier, the movie appeared the same year as the suave French Boyer took out U.S. citizenship.  Duvivier was himself exiled from Europe like many French who escaped on the Clipper to the U.S. and Canada. 

John Wayne in The Flying Tigers in 1942 had another Clipper connection.  At the beginning of this movie, pilots are quitting CBAC, a Chinese airline, to join the Tigers because Japanese Zeroes were shooting at their commercial aircraft.  These men wanted to shoot back.  CBAC, was a stand-in for the actual CNAC.    China National Aviation Corporation, spelled literally in Chinese as the “Middle Kingdom Space Machine Family,” was Pan American’s subsidiary in China that flew an assortment of aircraft including Douglas and Leoning amphibions.  These planes flew the interior Chinese routes to link with the Clippers in Hong Kong.  Some pilots flew both CNAC amphibions and PAA Clippers, which in Chinese pidgin English were called, “topside rickshaw, coolie no got.”  In other words, Clippers carried people like a rickshaw in the air, yet magically had no coolies to pull it.  Japanese attack planes did shoot up CNAC’s flying rickshaws, and former PAA/CNAC personnel did fly for the Flying Tigers.  Some continued to fly for CNAC opening up the famous lifeline for China during the war by flying “the Hump” to India.

In the movie, Wayne uses a twin-engine transport to bomb Japanese bridges with nitroglycerine after the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor.  Typical of many WWII “enemy movies,” the story was not so much about the Japanese enemy as about how Americans must be “team” players.  The renegade, independent good flier, emblematic of the America hero found in westerns, detective and adventure films, must now think even more of others.  This posed one of the main problems in being an American hero.  Independence and rugged individualism was cherished, yet at the same time concessions had to be made for the good of the whole—the same publicity problem Pan American Airways faced in portraying itself concurrently as an independent underdog commercial airline needing airmail subsidies yet the chosen instrument of the U.S. government’s team.

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